ZANI Billy Preston (1946 - 2006) Remembered

Written by Cameron K
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William Everett Preston was born in 1946 in Houston. After his parents split up, William and his mother moved to Los Angeles. He was brought up in the African-American gospel tradition and was a child prodigy who learned to play piano as a toddler.

William was soon performing as a child entertainer, but away from the stage and unchaperoned, young Billy was subjected to sexual abuse by members of the touring company. His mother refused to believe him and failed to protect him, which had a profound effect on the performer later in life. Aged ten, he was playing organ onstage. He served as the choir director at his mother’s church, where he would regularly play backing for gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Andraé Crouch.

On national television, Billy Preston (aged 11) dueted with Nat King Cole. They sang Fats Domino hit, "Blueberry Hill." He also played the younger, W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958), starring Nat King Cole. Destined for stardom, the fifteen-year-old Billy started touring in Little Richard's band, and being a virtuoso keyboard player, he played the organ. It was while performing Hamburg; Billy Preston first ran across The Beatles. When he returned to the States, he played the organ on Sam Cooke's Night Beat album and recorded his first solo album, '16 Yr Old Soul'. The album features 'Tommy'.

In the mid-60s, Billy became a regular on television and appeared on Shindig (ABC). He was both vocalist and pianist and built an enviable reputation as a session musician. He released 'The Most'.

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In 1965, he released a compilation album, ‘Early hits of ‘65’, which featured soul versions of recompiled singles and hits from that era. Four years later, Billy signed to Apple Records and released the album ‘That's The Way God Planned It,’ produced by George Harrison. Over the years, the musicians had become great friends, and Billy appeared on several of Harrison's 1970s solo albums, including All Things Must Pass (1970) and Concert for Bangladesh (1971).

During the recording sessions for Let it be, George Harrison dropped out to see Ray Charles, with Billy Preston playing in concert. George invited Billy Preston back to Abbey Road. The Beatles liked him especially for his easy-going personality, which helped ease the tensions. Billy played Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Lowrey DSO Heritage organ during the recording. He performed with The Beatles on their last public performance, on the rooftop of Apple, on 30 January 1969. Later, when the single, Get Back/Don’t Let Me Down, was released, it was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston." Billy and Tony Sheridan were the only two non-members to receive a performance credit on a Beatles record. Lennon was in favour of making Billy Preston a full member of the band, but McCartney disagreed. Billy Preston played uncredited on The Beatles' Abbey Road album.

He helped Stephen Stills with his solo album in 1970 and gave permission to Stills to use "Love the one you're with," which was a frequent remark made by Preston. ‘Love the one you’re with,’ had Dave Crosby and Graham Nash on background vocals became a Top Twenty hit on the Billboard charts in 1971. From 1970, Billy Preston played keyboards (including piano, organ, clavinet, and various synthesizers) for the Rolling Stones, sometimes alongside pianists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart, and featured on Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St, Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n Roll and Black and Blue. He was the band's primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. They eventually parted company mainly due to a disagreement over money. He continued to play on solo records by Stones members and made appearances on the band's 1981 Tattoo You and 1997 Bridges to Babylon albums.

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After leaving Apple in 1971, he signed with Herb Alpert's A&M Records. He released ‘I wrote a simple song,’ a gospel-themed album. George Harrison played guitar (dobro) accompaniment on the title track. The Funk/R&B instrumental "Outa-Space," featured an electrically amplified Hohner Clavinet and peaked at number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100. It also topped Billboard's R&B chart. More US hits came with "Will It Go Round in Circles" (1972), "Space Race" (1973), and "Nothing From Nothing" (1974),

During the 70s, Billy was a regular sessions’ contributor to other acts, including John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in the Abbey Road studio. He joined Ringo Starr (drums) and Klaus Voormann (bass) to record their first album, Aretha Franklin (“Young, Gifted and Black” in 1972), and Bob Dylan (“Blood on the Tracks” - 1975)

Billy became friendly with Sly Stone and played sessions on several of the group’s albums, including “There's a Riot Goin' On” in 1971. After, Sly Stone started an affair with Billy’s fiance, Kathy Silva. This destabilised the performer, who began to question his sexuality seeking solace in cocaine abuse. Billy threw himself into work and co-wrote "You Are So Beautiful" with Dennis Wilson (Beach Boys), which became a major hit for Joe Cocker in 1974. Billy Preston finished 1975, supporting The Rolling Stones on their Tour of the Americas. Sometimes Billy’s personal beliefs were at odds with the attitudes and musical expressions of the secular world of rock & roll in which he worked. He happily contributed to John Lennon’s atheistic song "God" but was reported to have reservations when performing "Sympathy for the Devil."

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His solo career started to decline after 1976. He switched record labels and, in 1980, had a hit with Syreeta Wright on the ballad "With You I'm Born Again," which reached number 4 on the US charts.

In 1984, he left Motown to focus on session work and late-night television work. Behind the scene, Billy was battling an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. Ringo Starr asked him to join the All-Starr Band, and then in 1991, after the death of Stan Szelest, Billy was invited to become a member of The Band. Unfortunately, he could not accept because he was sentenced to nine months at a drug rehabilitation center and three months of house arrest after being found guilty of a series of offenses. He was sentenced to three years in prison for violating probation six years later. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and agreed to testify against other defendants in an alleged scam that netted about $1 million. In prison, he reaffirmed his Christian faith and, on release, returned to recording, reuniting with the Rolling Stones on “Bridges to Babylon.”

In 1997, Billy Preston recorded the album You and I with the Italian band Novecento in Italy. Back in the States, he appeared in the film ‘Blues Brothers 2000.’ He was touring when he heard the news of the death of his friend, George Harrison, in 2001. Despite ill health, he proudly performed at Concert For George (2002) at the Royal Albert Hall, where he played My Sweet Lord and Isn't It A Pity. Back in the States, he appeared on the Johnny Cash album American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), playing piano on "Personal Jesus" and "Tear-Stained Letter." In the same year, he received a kidney transplant, but his health deteriorated, and he was soon on dialysis. In 2004, he toured with the Funk Brothers and then with Eric Clapton in Europe and North America. Billy Preston performed as a jazz organist on Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, an album of duets, on "Here We Go Again" with Charles and Norah Jones.

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Billy continued to perform and record in 2005. He recorded "Go Where No One's Gone Before" for the anime series L/R: Licensed by Royalty and played clavinet on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ "Warlocks” for their Stadium Arcadium album (2006). His final recorded contributions were the gospel-tinged organ on the Neil Diamond album 12 Songs (2005) and his keyboard work on The Road to Escondido (2006) by JJ Cole and Eric Clapton. His final public appearance was at a 2005 press junket in Los Angeles to re-release the Concert for Bangladesh film. Afterward, he performed Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth), My Sweet Lord and Isn't It A Pity with Ringo Starr, and George's son Dhani. Billy was encouraged to enter a drug rehabilitation clinic in Malibu, California, but suffered pericarditis leading to respiratory failure that left him in a coma. Billy Preston died of complications from kidney failure in 2006.

Reused by Kind Permission from Cameron K's Blog

Read 537 times Last modified on Tuesday, 18 January 2022 14:26
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Cameron K

Cameron K

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